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High court won't weigh in on vanity-plate debate

By The Associated Press

04.15.02

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court passed up a chance today to decide whether states have wide discretion to keep crude or contentious messages off personalized license plates.

That means Mary Lewis gets to keep her Missouri plate, "ARYAN-1."

For nearly two decades the state and Lewis have battled over her right to post that message on her bumper.

Drivers in every state have the option of choosing a personal message for their plate, if they pay extra. Thousands of cars have tags with drivers' names, colleges and favorite sports teams.

The Supreme Court was asked if states that allow tags to become message boards can also censor them. The justices declined, without comment, to review Missouri's appeal.

Missouri leaders argue that some six-letter combinations can invoke road rage and are a public-safety issue.

The word "Aryan" is considered by many to be inflammatory because Adolf Hitler used it to describe a superior race.

The Missouri law, revised after Lewis won an initial legal fight to get her tag, says plates cannot be "obscene, profane, inflammatory or contrary to public policy." Twenty-five states ban "offensive" messages, and other states have varying standards.

Missouri went too far by adding the "contrary to public policy" standard, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found. A public official with "even marginal creative ability" could come up with reasons to turn down choices under that vague standard, the court ruled.

The appeals court also said that fears about reactions from other drivers were not enough to censor Lewis' speech. "The First Amendment knows no heckler's veto," the court said.

Lewis first sought the license plate "ARYAN-1" in 1983 but was turned down. She later won the right to get the tag. After the law was changed, she was notified that her message was contrary to public policy.

Her lawyer, Robert Herman, told the Supreme Court in filings that Missouri has allowed other drivers to list on plates religions, national origin, political beliefs and ethnic heritage. He criticized the state's "standardless and therefore virtually unlimited discretion to prohibit and punish public politically unacceptable speech."

Attorney General Jay Nixon said in filings that "prudent government officials" should be able to consider restricting speech on state license plates that threatens public safety.

He said the case puts in jeopardy license plate restrictions in all 50 states and could lead to multiple lawsuits.

Nixon said the 25 states that bar "offensive" plates are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Missouri collects more than $2 million a year from the fees on license plates, also known as vanity tags.

The case is Fischer v. Lewis.

Previous

Missouri ordered to reissue 'ARYAN-1' license plate
State failed to show constitutional justification for censoring tag, appeals panel finds.  06.13.01

Related

The GR8 debate over vanity license plates
By Ken Paulson Express yourself in seven letters or less.  08.26.01

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

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